I really shouldn’t have to type the date in this post’s title. When you talk about “damn dirty apes,” everyone knows that you are referencing one movie, and one alone. The only thing I remember about the misbegotten 2001 Mark Wahlberg remake of Planet of the Apes is that it was the last movie I saw in a theater prior to the September 11 attacks. On the other hand, the original Planet of the Apes is such a stone-cold classic that it should never be confused with any other movie. Whatever kind of unique identifier you need to attach to it, do so, because this is a movie you should never lose track of.
Watching it now, you might not realize that right away. Some aspects of the movie definitely come off as dated or campy, most of them being lines of dialogue from star Charlton Heston (“It’s a madhouse! A MAAAAAAD-HOOOOUSE!”). The Oscar-winning makeup effects don’t hold up so well, except around the eyes of the actors playing apes.
However, it’s important to remember the era that the movie emerged into. Civil rights for African-Americans were a new and controversial thing, with the Voting Rights Act banning poll taxes and “literacy” tests just three years before. The Vietnam War had been going on for some time, but the Tet Offensive happened in 1968, forcing Americans to realize what a slog the war would become. Many of the issues which define the culture wars of today, such as the teaching of evolution, were just emerging.
That’s the world in which Rod Serling (the mastermind behind The Twilight Zone) was asked to adapt a French novel about a world in which apes evolved from men. Serling’s original script is rumored to have been completely insane – imagine apes in business suits, navigating a futuristic city in helicopters – so the credit for this film more properly goes to director Franklin Schaffner, who developed a lot of the concepts that went into the final film. Schaffner conceived of an ape society that would be more religious than scientific, which not only made the movie affordable enough to produce, but also allowed for extensive social allegory.
Heston plays Taylor, an astronaut leading a colonizing expedition that should take hundreds of years to arrive at its destination. Instead it veers off-course and takes almost two thousand years to crash-land on the titular planet, where humans are animalistic mutes at the mercy of the society of sentient apes. Taylor’s presence as a talking, reasoning human threatens the very foundations of that society, and he soon finds himself at the mercy of its brutally primitive science and kangaroo courts.
As it turns out, all it takes is a little funny ape makeup, and the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man are thrown into sharp relief. It’s easy to watch the ape jailers turn a fire hose on Taylor, and to be reminded of how police did the same to civil rights marchers in Alabama. The specious legal reasoning used by the apes to condemn Taylor is reminiscent of the circular logic used to deny black Americans the vote.
It’s surprising to see Heston deliver these messages, considering the flame-throwing conservative leader that he would become later in life. He is good at it, though, because he knows that you have to be bigger than big in a film like this. The goofy ape makeup demands a wild performance. You might laugh at how loud and hammy some of his lines are, but do you know what you’d have if the movie were quieter and more intense in those scenes? You’d have a weak-tea Mark Wahlberg remake, that’s what.
In its day, Planet of the Apes was promoted as an action picture, and I suppose that’s true. Humans and apes alike get punched, kicked, chased, and shot. Its action doesn’t seem like much compared to, say, Bullitt (released in the same year) or The Wild Bunch (one year later). On the other hand, those films were aimed at adults, this one isn’t, and 1968 was also the first year in which American films received ratings. Although the action is a little clumsy – the apes’ reliance on the oversized net as a weapon becomes laughable at some point – this is still as exciting as a G-rated film gets.*
All that remained of Serling’s original script was his twist ending, but that’s more than enough. It’s a great ending, one of the all-time achievements in film, in part because it’s so dark. I hadn’t seen this movie in several years, and for some reason I thought there was music over that unforgettable final shot, but there actually isn’t. It’s silent, except for the crashing of waves on the beach. Even when you think about all the jokes and parodies that have been done over the years, it still manages to retain its power.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Yes, with its heavy civil rights metaphors and multiple on-screen deaths, Planet of the Apes was rated G. So was its sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which a group of skinless mutant humans worship an atomic bomb. Fun for the whole family!